Never give up, never surrender. There will be nights when you may be hungry or there are nights when you may not be able to go to sleep because you are thinking about the problems in life. Do not give up. Do not surrender. If you love something or love someone, you stick to it until you become successful, until you reach the point you want to get to. Never give up, no matter what.
I had the distinct pleasure to interview the Emmy-winning, Oscar-nominated Actress Shohreh Aghdashloo. Shohreh can currently be seen starring in the critically acclaimed futuristic TV series The Expanse, portraying the powerful politician ‘Chrisjen Avasarala.’ Season 5 of The Expanse premiered on Amazon Prime Video this week and new episodes will be released weekly, with the finale premiering on 2/3/21.
Shohreh Aghdashloo was born Shohreh Vaziri-Tabar on May 11, 1952, in Tehran, Iran. In the 1970s at age 20, she achieved nationwide stardom in her homeland of Iran, starring in some prominent pictures such as The Report (1977) directed by the renowned Abbas Kiarostami, which won critics awards at the Moscow Film Festival. In 1978, she won wider acclaim and established herself as one of Iran’s leading ladies with Desiderium (1978) directed by the late Ali Hatami. During the Islamic Revolution, Aghdashloo left Iran for England, to complete her education. Her interest in politics and her concern for social injustice in the world would lead her to receive a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations.
She continued to pursue her acting career, which eventually brought her to Los Angeles in 1987. She went on to marry actor/playwright Houshang Touzie, performing in a number of his plays, successfully taking them to national and international stages. In the 1990s and in early 2000 it was not easy getting work in Hollywood as an actress of Middle Eastern descent; however, Shohreh managed to get roles in smaller films, including Twenty Bucks (1993), Surviving Paradise (2000), and Maryam (2002).
Shohreh’s big break came years after she read the acclaimed novel “House of Sand and Fog,” when DreamWorks brought the story to the silver screen. After casting Ben Kingsley (as Massoud Amir Behrani) and Jennifer Connelly in the lead roles for the film, they were looking for a relatively unknown Iranian actress to play Kingsley’s wife, Nadi Behrani. Shohreh Aghdashloo was duly cast. She stole the limelight and earned herself an Academy Award nomination (2004) in the Best Supporting Actress category for her performance in House of Sand and Fog. During the 2003–2004 film awards season, she also won the Independent Spirit Award as Best Supporting Actress in a Feature Film, and captured both the New York and Los Angeles Film Critics Awards for her role as Nadi Behrani in House of Sand and Fog.
In 2009, Shohreh became the first Iranian woman to win an Emmy for her performance as Saddam Hussein’s wife in the HBO miniseries House of Saddam. The rest, as they say, is history.
Yitzi: Thank you so much for joining us Shohreh. Our readers would love to get to know you better. Can you tell us a story about how you grew up?
Shohreh: Sure. I grew up in Tehran, the capital of Iran, which we used to call Paris in the Middle East. My parents were young (in their early 20’s) when I was born. When I was just an infant, they would put me in the middle of the room and take care of me. My grandmother told me years later that I am truly a baby of love and that’s why I should be more caring and loving. I often think of how hard it can be for a young child to be mindful of loving others. But somehow I learned it really fast during my childhood. When I look back and I think about it, I get nostalgic. There was nothing compared to the love of my parents and love from my grandparents.
We lived a very modern life back then in Iran. So, if there was any problem, the whole family would get together and talk about it in order to solve the problem. Every time I look back, I always remember the shining sun while looking out at the Caspian Sea, the colors of light, and the forest. If you happen to visit Iran, you have to eat whatever they offer you or they will be offended. That’s why every time I look back, I always remember having lunch under the beautiful sun with the whole family by the Caspian Sea. It’s been 42 years now since I left Iran and these are the thingsI still remember.
Yitzi: Wow, that’s beautiful. So can you tell us a story that brought you to this particular career path as a successful actress?
Shohreh: This is really interesting. I was the only entertainer in my family while growing up. At every party, every gathering, every celebration, I would entertain my family and they would laugh their hearts out. It was always lively, but I had no idea what I was doing or what I would become.
The real trigger was when my mother and my aunt took me, my brother, and my cousin to see the film “Gone with the Wind.” I will never forget that day. I turned to my mother and said, “I am going to become an actress no matter what,” and she looked at me and said, “Not under my roof.”Women in acting was frowned upon in Iran, so this was not something a young lady would normally pursue. My mother had no idea that I was captivated by the brilliant acting in Gone with the Wind, which I had never seen before in my life.
It made me believe what I was watching. When you are watching a film and it makes you believe that it would have happened in real life or it can happen in real life, it’s impactful. It was so real to me. I was only 16 years-old, so you can imagine how mesmerized I was when I was watching Gone with the Wind. I think I’ve watched this film more than a dozen times.
Yitzi: Can you tell us a story about how you got called and selected for this role in The Expanse?
Shohreh: Well, I initially met with MarkFergus and Hawk Ostby — two of my favorite writers of all times, someyears before The Expansewas happening. After a couple of years, I got a call from Hawk Ostby and he told me that he had a project in mind for me. He also told me that he knew I had to use my experience in acting because for this specific project I would not have much time to read the script. It was the first time in my 46 year career that I accepted an offer without having read the script because when he told me the story, he did such a great job. He elaborated the story in 10 minutes.
It shows how much I believed in the project because I had seen Iron Man. Itruly lovedthe penmanship. I was sure of what I was doing because I was collaborating with these two amazing writers. It’s the only role that I have portrayed having not read the script beforehand. He just told me the synopsis of the story and I fell in love with it. I kept asking him “is this science fiction”? And he said, “Yes, it is science fiction.” And I said, “It’s so creative.” “That’s why we want to make it”, he answered. I said, “Why do we call it science fiction and why not a futuristic piece?” and he said, “Yes, I understand butwe’re calling it science fiction in the end.” I just loved the idea.
Yitzi: Can you tell us an interesting story that happened to you on the set of The Expanse?
Shohreh: The funniest of them all was on the very first day. I had gone to choose the saree I would wear. I decided that my character wears boots and not shoes. The costume designer, Joanne Hansen, loved the idea. So she got me a couple of pairs of ruck marching boots. It was a pair of dark green ruck marching boots that matched really well with my green saree. I loved it and I said, “This is it. I’m wearing these.” So on the very first day of shooting the first episode, I put on my saree, and my hair and makeup were done. I put on my boots and I went to the set to see Terry McDonough (the director) and I said, “Hello Terry, I’m ready.”
And Terry looked at me, and said, “No, you’re not.” And I said, “Why are you saying that?” Then he said, “You need to wear your shoes. Where are your shoes? I said, “These are my shoes.” He said to me, “I understand, but your character wears shoes.” I said, “These are my character’s shoes.” Then Terry said, “Are you kidding with me?” I said, “No. I decided that my character wears boots.” He didn’t believe it. This was the first day. So, Terry called Joanne (our costume designer) so they could sort out the issue. When Joanne came to meet Terry, he said, “Is the character, Avasarala wearing ruck marching boots?” Joanne said yes. Then he asked Joanne for the reason and Joanne told him that I believed my character was a soldier. He said okay and then asked why he wasn’t told. So I told Terry that I tried telling him that it was my choice but he didn’t believe me. I didn’t bother to elaborate.
There is a fascinating conclusion to this story. I love visiting churches, whether I’m in London or Toronto. They are really beautiful and there is one close to my apartment in Toronto.
After we were done filming season one, I packed my stuff and I told my assistant that we should go to St. James’ Church. Every time I go to the church, as soon as I sit down, I always open the Bible and read a page and I take it as a message for myself. So, we went to the Church, I opened the page and it said, ”You’re a soldier. You will always be a soldier. You have been a soldier all of your life. Do not take off your boots. You are needed.” I was marveled. I showed it to my friends. Look at this, it’s asking me not to take off my boots.
Yitzi: As you know, Avasarala the character you played is an extremely strong and powerful woman. She is portrayed like that by you on the show. I’m wondering if that’s the way you are. Are you that type of strong woman and that just comes out in the show? Or do you have to work to become that strong woman? Do you have to work at it, or is that the natural way you are?
Shohreh: Yes. To be honest with you, I could not do what she does.
I believe I’m a strong woman. I’ve left the Revolution behind and I’ve started from zero at least three times in my life; in Iran, the UK, and the United States. So I am a strong woman myself.
But I have a feeling that Avasarala is far stronger than me. I have ties in life. I have my family, and my friends to think of. But she’s very much like Queen Elizabeth. For her, it is the country and duty. Queen Elizabeth keeps talking about these two things all the time. Even when she’s scolding her children, she keeps saying that, I am the Queen of your country. Duty, duty, duty. In my character’s case, it’s all about a mother’s duty. She’s become one with her profession and job. She’s not afraid of anything. All she has in mind is to protect the earth from its predators. Although she knows many predators have migrated to other planets, she knows that they’re going to come back for the earth’s resources and she doesn’t want that to happen because she knows within a couple of generations, the earth’s people will run out of water, and will run out of the necessities for life.
So she’s far stronger than I am. She’s willing to sacrifice herself for what she believes is right.
But yes, I have a feeling that if I weren’t as strong as I am, I would have not been able to do a thorough job on this particular character because she’s larger than life.
One thing I love about playing this role is the power of her chair. Normally with a queen, it’s the chair that gives the power. As soon as you sit on the chair, you become powerful no matter what. But in Avasarala’s case, it’s not the chair that is giving her the power, it’s her that is giving the power to the chair.
Yitzi: So you mentioned earlier that the script was very relevant after you read it, and obviously, it is. Can you tell us a few moral lessons the show was trying to teach us? What is the main lesson for our society that you hope people take out of it?
Shohreh: The main lesson I believe is that not taking care of Mother Earth, not being mindful of our oceans, not caring about humanity, not trying to be as humanitarian as possible, being greedy and not being mindful of others will take us to the world of The Expanse.
Those actions will take us there and will distract us from being productive, from being useful, from being real humans because we become so greedy and so selfish that all we think about is ourselves, our families, our interests. I am sorry to say this, but this is kind of like a “Pac-Man mentality”. In the arcade game Pac-Man, Pac-Man comes out every day and all he needs to do is to eat everything, finish it up. If we go this way, we’re just going to get destroyed.
Yitzi: None of us have been able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person that you’re grateful towards that helped you achieve the success you have now? And can you share a story about that?
Shohreh: Absolutely, I do. There are two people in my life. The first person is my grandma. She would take me out every Friday, which is equivalent to Sundays in the Western world. She would do the shopping for me during the week. She would buy chocolates, candies, and many other things for me. She once told me, “a life without public service is not a life.” So I am always grateful to her for teaching me that because every time I help someone or I’m being helpful, I feel proud of myself. She also taught me to be mindful of others, which gives me a certain kind of assurance that will keep me away from life’s harm. Those are the things she taught me.
The second person was my father — may God bless his soul. We had this picture taken together, which I put in the kitchen because I want to see him every morning. And every morning, I bow to him and tell him, “thank you for taking such good care of me. I am so grateful and thankful to be born into your hands and the way you brought me up”. This man was so careful about our education. Every day, our father would sit down with us, and help us do our homework. Every time, my mother would say, “Oh my God, Shohreh is so beautiful. She’s going to get married soon. We’re not going to let her stay with us. I’m sure she’s going to have lots of children.” But my father would say, “No, Shohreh is not going to get married earlier. Shohreh needs to become a doctor. We need a doctor in the family. She needs to educate herself.” And then in private, he would tell me, do not try to marry somebody but try to become somebody. You can become somebody. My father would tell my mum, “She’s not going to marry somebody. She is going to become somebody.” If I had not heard that, I would have not had enough self-confidence to go ahead and do what I did in life. It was him who gave me the wings. In other words, as in the song, he was the true “wind beneath my wings”.
Yitzi: You’ve been blessed with great success in a career that can be very challenging. Do you have any words of advice to others who may want to pursue this career, but are afraid of the prospect of failure in Hollywood or entertainment?
Shohreh: Absolutely. I will start with these two. Never give up, never surrender.
There are nights when you may be hungry or there are nights when you may not be able to go to sleep because you are thinking about the problems in life. Do not give up. Do not surrender. If you love something or love someone, you stick to it until you become successful, until you reach the point you want to get to. Never give up, no matter what.
Try to get a job in the meantime because you need to work and you need to take care of yourself. When I was a university student in the UK, I was working at the same time in a London boutique, and that was how I met Princess Diana for the first time.
I was working in a boutique while training to become a better actress. Whatever you do, always try to provide for yourself in a way that you would be able to stick to what you believe in.
Be realistic with yourself. Don’t put yourself somewhere that cannot be touched not even by yourself. Don’t go there. There’s no such place. No one is above the other. Be yourself and let the world see through you. Allow the world to see through you. Be honest with yourself.
Yitzi: Beautiful. you mentioned before that life without service is not worth living. What specifically drives you to get up every day and work in film. What’s your motivation?
Shohreh: My biggest drive are my children, and the next generation. The name of my first sponsored child from India is Mamta, who I sponsored through the non-profit organization Mother Miracle. Mother Miracle provides education, nutrition, and healthcare to impoverished children. I started sponsoring Mamta when she was 10 years-old. Mamta is now 24 years-old and she’s a nurse at Delhi hospital. Every time I think about her, I feel proud of her and myself. My motivations are children, including my own child, Tara Jane. Her name is Tara because of “Gone with the Wind” and Jane because of Jane Austen — my favorite movie characters.
10. Yitzi: What change would you like to see in the industry going forward?
Shohreh: The entertainment industry is going through a lot of changes and not just because of COVID-19. Ever since the game-changing streaming services entered the entertainment world (Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, and Apple TV) the industry has been drastically altered. It’s going global, and more people are now able to join the worldwide film and television industry because of the new technologies and innovations.
This is exactly what I thought should have happened when I first came to the USA in 1984. I thought with all these advanced technological gadgets we should be able to tell a story together, regardless of our accent and background and nationality. This was in the early 80’s and the industry wasn’t ready for it then. So it took two to three decades for us to get here, to be able to tell the story together — and this is just the beginning.
The possibilities are limitless. It’s unbelievable. With all of these changes, the industry is going to grow, not die down. It’s going to grow and more and more people will join. The future is so colorful and informative and I just hope that I will live long enough to be able to watch it in its entirety.
Yitzi: Beautiful. Here’s a question that I often ask different leaders. We often learn the most from our experiences. Are there five things that you wish somebody told you when you first started as an actress?
Shohreh: Yitzi, don’t laugh at me. When I was first offered the role in the House of Sand and Fog, I had no idea how to act, how to work, and what to do in Hollywood.
In other words, I had no idea how to make films in English. So I called a dear friend and asked for lunch. I said, “I have a couple of questions”. “What am I going to do”? And he said, “what you’re going to do is that you are going to work. You’re going to do your best and you are going to just get better and better. You keep working for 10 years and then you can complain if you feel like it.”
But there has never been a moment I wanted to complain. To be honest, nothing has happened to me to complain about. Keep working, be decent, be organic, and never be afraid to be yourself. Just keep working and polishing yourself.
Yitzi: Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your own life?
Shohreh: I have a couple of favorites. Of course, Rumi, the Persian poet, is my number one. I’m sure you’re familiar with him. His work has been translated by the poet Lord Edward FitzGerald.
He was once asked what love is all about. He said you would not know until you become one with your beloved. Therefore “I” turns into “us”.
Yitzi: Wow, that is beautiful. Given your position as a person of huge influence, if you can inspire a movement that will bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? Because you never know what your idea can trigger.
Shohreh: For almost a decade now, my biggest wish is to be able to provide a place, a non-profit, cost-free place where young people who do not have access to a proper education could join and study for free. Just a place where we could gather all these young people who would like to learn more about acting and get themselves ready to join the industry. That’s on my bucket list. I want to start a center for underprivileged actors, that is cost-free.
Yitzi: Beautiful. This has been a wonderful and inspirational interview. I am so blessed that I have been able to do this with you. Is there anything else that you would like to conclude with? Any concluding message, either about The Expanse or about your future plans that you’d like to share with our readers?
Shohreh: The Expanse is one of the best things that has ever happened to me in my career. It’s a badge of honor for me to be able to portray such a huge character like Avasarala. I was really honored that they gave me the role in such a great show. I plan to write a book about working on The Expanse and about working with such amazing writers, cast, and production crew. I have never seen anything like this in my career. I’m so thankful for this beautiful team. Then there are the creative people who envision the future and take part in shaping it. They are visionary creative people like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg. These people keep paving the path for us.
Yitzi: Some people would say that one of the greatest challenges we have today is that our country is very divided. From your experience, what would you say we can do to help heal the soul of our country, to help heal ourselves, help come together?
Shohreh: Yitzi, to be honest with you, it’s not just our country that has been divided. Look at other countries. Look at France, Iran, etc. This started years ago. So, it has been happening for a while now and it’s not just the United States. Our rulers need to learn how to rule without dividing us. “Divide and conquer” is no longer the solution to rule, but solidarity is. People are smart today and pretty aware of the world’s situation through social media. They won’t buy old methods anymore. They need love, trust and guidance.
I keep hearing this sentence on television, in films and on social media that, “although we’re far from each other now, although we’re not seeing each other, our hearts are closer than ever before.” I have heard this sentence at least 30 or 40 times from all those outlets, and from ordinary people I have spoken with. They all say the same thing. Although we don’t see each other as much, although we’re not hugging each other, our hearts are closer now. This is so true because we’re paying more attention to fundamental details.
Yitzi: Wow. You’re making a very profound point. When we realize that people are using this division to control us, we can no longer be controlled by it. I never thought of it that way. Wow. that’s profound.
Shohreh: Many years ago, it was for our rulers to decide how we live and what sort of politics we should follow. But not anymore. I made a clip for Thanksgiving. I said, “I’m thankful for being free. I’m thankful for having the choice. I’m thankful for my family and friends.” So, the real thing is to be free and to have a choice. We are maybe some of the rare people on the face of the earth who have the luxury of having those two; to be free and to have a choice. We are free and we have a choice. Therefore, we don’t have to go by the principle of divide and conquer. What we need to do as a country is to come together and create awareness. That’s all we should do because right now there’s a cyber army of people, on payrolls who are trying to manipulate our minds.
Yitzi: After we finish the interview I am happy to share the transcript with you to look over for accuracy. My goal is to be able to share the most interesting and authentic story of you possible.
Shohreh: Thank you so much. Yes, absolutely. Yitzi, we all are storytellers, and the best way we can do it is to do it the best we can. We are on the same boat.
Yitzi: That’s a great point actually; we’re in the same industry. That’s very profound.
Shohreh: My point is that it is a collaborative industry. This is why I love this industry because it’s all about collaboration. Whoever thinks that it’s just him, is so mistaken. It’s really about collaboration and that is what I love about this profession so much.
Yitzi: Shohreh, I want to thank you so much for your time. You’ve been so gracious and so kind. I wish you only continued blessings and success and hopefully, we can connect again.
Shohreh: Thank you so much, Yitzi. I truly enjoyed our talk. This is another reason why I love my profession so much because it allows me to meet intellectual writers like yourself. Thank you so much for taking your time and doing this interview. If you ever need me, don’t hesitate to let me know anything that you’d like to discuss.
Thank You. I really appreciate it.
Yitzi: Thanks so much. You too. Take good care of yourself.